Gabriella Vagnoli

Gabriella Vagnoli

Gabriella Vagnoli Interview

Gabriella Vagnoli

Children's Illustrator

Who or what made you want to become an illustrator?

I was always interested in cartoons and comics as well as picture books, but it took me time to realize that it could be a career rather than just a hobby. In Italy the Fine Arts were much more encouraged because of the weight of all of the art history there and when it came time for me to choose what to study there was nothing that seemed up my alley in the art department. Once I moved to the United States I realized that there was a much more dynamic market and a lot more resources for me to learn to be a better illustrator. Once I found the Children's Illustration BFA at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design I was immediately on board and so I started studying for my second degree under some great mentors.

Did you attend art school or undertake any other formal artistic training?

Yes, I have a BFA in Children's Book Illustration from Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design where I had many wonderful and passionate teachers including Geisel Award winner Kaz Windness and Brizida Magro.

Where do you currently live and where did you grow up?

I grew up in Italy, but my mother was Brazilian so we grew up in a multicultural/bilingual family. I definitely grew up with the idea of the worlds as a small place and of family as a bond that transcends time and distance, which probably helped me when I fell in love with an American and moved to the US. I am now an American citizen as well, I have lived 14 years near Chicago, IL but now I am very happy to have left the cold and the snow behind and to be near the ocean and the mountains of beautiful Seattle, WA. I am in love with this city, sometimes I have to pinch myself because I cant believe I am lucky enough to live here!

Was creativity part of your childhood?

Most definitely: my mom is the one that has always encouraged me first of all to read but also to draw and color. I remember vividly afternoons passed together with her and my sister just making big drawings that we would color together, well into my teenage years! My sister has gone on to become a Fine Art artist as well as a textile designer and I have always mantained that she is defintiely the art genius of the family, but the truth is that I always leaned towards cartoons and children's illustrations more than Fine Art. It just took me a while to realize that children's books could actually be a career and to pursue my dream.

Who or what has been your greatest mentor?

I am a great fan of one of my RMCAD teachers, Kaz Windness. She was a great teacher during school and afterwards and a great inspiration with her career. Her advice and portfolio reviews are always very insightful and she is also an all-round wonderful person.

What was your first commission as a professional illustrator?

The Cayuga Island Kids series was my first commission (apart from a few projects I did for self-publishing authors). It was a great experience because I got to work with a small independent publisher and because I got to illustrate the five wonderful characters created by Judy Bradbury and infuse them with little details that go with their very distinct personalities. I also got to draw a ton of illustrations across three books and I really got to know these characters. My skills have definitely grown and improved through these three chapter books.

What piece of software or hardware could you not live without and why?

I could not live without my ipad and Procreate! That is where I do all of my work and for me digital art has been a great liberation. While I have studied traditional media in college, I love the freedom that digital media allows: it is like having an art studio with all sorts of media right in your pocket, plus I couldn't live without the Undo button! I use a screen protector and a pencil tip that makes the pencil feel like a real pencil on paper and I also use a pencil older that stops my hand from cramping after a while, without these tools I am lost!

Tell us about the creation of your favourite character from one of your books.

I really enjoyed creating Billie the Brain because of the challenge of creating a character that was essentially a walking talking brain. Let's be honest: the brain is not the most good looking of our organs, but the publisher was very adamant that it shouldn't look like a stylized version of a brain but like an actual one. I think the glasses and the bow on her head as well as chosing a slightly unrealistic pink (instead of gray) for her color really helped her pop and become cute! I got to draw her doing so many things and poses and it became quite an engaging guide for kids discovering all about their brains.

Gabriella Vagnoli interview image 0 Gabriella Vagnoli interview image 1 Gabriella Vagnoli interview image 2 Gabriella Vagnoli interview image 3

What would you say is a distinguishing feature of your artwork?

In non-fiction I am pretty talented at simplifying a concept and make it come acrioss to kids of all ages. I have always been a visual learner and I think that a well thought out illustration is worth a million words, especially when communicating with kids. 

 In fiction I like exploring difficult emotions, sadness, hurt and worry as well as tenderness and joy.

Style wise I combine a cartoony style ( big eyes, big heads, ink marks) with a more traditional style. I think I am also heavily influenced by the japanese manga/cartoons I used to watch constantly as a kid and it shows in the anatomy of my characters, while being at the same time uniquely me.

Share your favourite piece of artwork from your portfolio and walk us through its creation.

My favorite piece changes all the time of course, but right now it is this series of two pieces. These are part of a book dummy I am currently working on, so they are part of a story that is very close and personal to me and that I hope to see published one day soon. I enjoy the dynamics of the wind sweeping up the girl, the color palette, the emotions on the faces not only of the main character but also of the supporting dog and inflatable unicorn. I think they tell part of a story in and of themselves and showcase well my range and my interests as well as my style.

Gabriella Vagnoli interview image 0 Gabriella Vagnoli interview image 1

Outline your dream project.

In Fiction I woul like to illustrate something like "The Day You Begin" by Jacqueline Woodson, by far my most favorite picture book and one that brought me to tears when I first read it. It is the kind of book I would have needed as a child and it explores difficult emotions while giving hope.

In Non-Fiction I would like to illustrate other books about the human body or biology, I am very interested in learning more about those topics and for Billie the Brain I did a truly deep dive into neurology and brain anatomy in order to represent correctly very complex ideas like the different kinds of neural cells, how neuroreceptors work or myelin's function. 

I would also LOVE to work on something related to Shakespeare, which is one of my great passions and what I first studied in college. I love Shakespeare so much I have created over 100 portraits of Shakespeare in different styles (you can view them on instagram @shakesportraits) and some of them are sold as postcards in Shakespeare Theaters across the country! So I would definitely love to illustrate anything at all related to his work.

Are you an author/illustrator?

I am currently working on two book dummies.

The first dummy is called "The other side of the ocean" and talks about a girl who grows up in a tropical place with a mermaid as her best friend and then is forced to move to a far away and much colder place and misses her home and best friend terribly.

The one I am working on is called  " You can't stop the storm" and it is about those real as well as metaphorical storms that sometimes sweep unannounced into your life ruining your plans and what you can do to deal with them and live on to see another sunny day. 

When you are not drawing, how do you like to relax?

I love listening to music both when I work and when I don't, I sometimes joke that I chose to be an illustrator because I get to listen to music all day while doing it! My favorite artists are Glen Hansard, Radiohead and R.E.M. but I listen to a LOT more and have very varied tastes in music. I also love going to concerts whenever possible.

I have a passion for Shakespeare and try to see one of his plays whenever I can. 

I love reading fantasy and science fiction but my absolute favorite author is Terry Pratchett and I have read his books multiple times.

If you weren’t an illustrator, what would you be doing?

Before becoming an illustrator I have been many things: a barista, a travel agent, I organized concerts and music festivals and I thaugth Italian as a foreign language. I am also a mom to two wonderful boys and four crazy cats.

Are there any children’s classics you’d love to illustrate and/or re-tell?

When I was a kid my mom read me the entirety of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (yes it is a book and yes the book is way better than the movie) and it would be wonderful for me to illustrate it, a dream come true.

As I mentioned before, I would also like to re-tell any Shakespeare play for kids or any great work of literature. When I was a kid I used to read these Italian Mickey Mouse magazines and every once in a while they would publish a parody/retelling of a great work of literature. While these were very condensed versions of the classics they were retelling I can tell you I have learned most of the basic plots of some classics like Les Miserables from those magazines. I would love to do the same for other kids one day.

Connect With Us